China’s military buildup and manoeuvres along the McMahon Line started as early as 1959.
Prior to the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and its military occupation of Tibet, there was hardly any friction between the two ancient civilisations of China and India. They enjoyed cultural exchanges for millennia and kept a politically safe distance from each other, thanks to the natural barrier of the Himalayas.
But since the 1950s, as Tibet was swallowed by the dragon and ceased to be the buffer, the dominant theme driving bilateral relations between the Asian giants is of threat. The militaries of the two Asian neighbours stands face-to-face with no resolution to a simmering border dispute. Ideology, geopolitics and ambition have pushed China and India into a permanently edgy confrontation.
The book, China’s India War, by Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who has conducted decades of field work and research on the borderlands and fault lines of South, Southeast and East Asia, offers ample proof of why China and India cannot be friends. Its contention is that the two are politically and ideologically distinct like thesis and antithesis, and hence bound to compete.
The author starts his wide-ranging analysis by challenging the spin on the 1962 Sino-Indian war by British journalist Neville Maxwell in his 1970 classic, India’s China War, which claims that India provoked China into attacking it through its ill-conceived “Forward Policy”.
Lintner shows that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru adopted the “Forward Policy” along the border with China only in November 1961, while China’s Chairman Mao Zedong was planning war against India much before that.
China’s military buildup and manoeuvres along the McMahon Line started as early as 1959. The Chinese premier deployed no less than 80,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to overwhelm India. The locations and targets for the Chinese to hit in India were carefully selected, meticulously planned. The PLA’s knowledge of terrain inside India was “remarkable”as Chinese intelligence-gathering on the Indian side of the McMahon Line was done over several years in the 1950s, says the author,
Indian intelligence agents had relayed to the Nehru government at least three years before the fateful war that China was massing forces for an impending attack. The saga of how India missed these obvious signals and was caught napping to suffer a devastating military defeat is, of course, now known and lamented among strategic circles in India. But Lintner’s point is to refute the historical fallacy propagated by Maxwell that China was justly responding to India’s unjustified aggressive patrolling and outposts near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The main motive for China to conceive and execute the coldblooded war in 1962 was conveyed by Mao in a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) meeting in March 1959: “India was doing bad things in Tibet and, therefore, had to be dealt with.” Tibet was the crux of the matter because India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama who fled the PLA’s invasion of Tibet in 1959.
As a utopian socialist who believed that India and China had more in common, Nehru failed to understand Mao’s hardnosed (albeit mistaken) conviction that India was colluding with Britain and the US to overturn China’s takeover of Tibet.
The CCP had branded Nehru a “running dog of Western imperialism” in 1949 itself. In 1959, when an armed Tibetan uprising broke out against Chinese colonialism in Lhasa, Beijing accused Nehru of “inheriting England’s old policy of saying Tibet is an independent country” and adopting “the strategic aspirations of British imperialism.” India, actually, never assisted armed anti-China Tibetan rebels before the 1962 war. But for the radical communists under Mao, India was pigeonholed as a “bourgeois” accomplice of the West “to invade Tibet and enslave its people.”
The author illustrates with examples that for China, “political motives were more important than the exact alignment of the border” with India. The 1962 war was not meant to grab territory but, in Mao’s famous words, “teach India a lesson” and weaken Nehru’s credentials as a leader of the Third World.
The author points to the irony that China settled its border dispute with Myanmar in 1960 by accepting the same McMahon Line which it slams as an obsolete and “unequal” boundary drawn up by Western colonialists, when it comes to reaching a final agreement with India. He does not extrapolate from this insight but it is obvious that China uses border disputes and sovereignty claims to try and coerce India against strategically embracing other powers. A piece of land here or there is not the principal Chinese goal. Rather the larger objective is to tie India down to stay strategically inferior and incapable of equalling or overtaking China.
China’s India War contains fascinating details of the proxy wars waged by China and India after the 1962 war. Naga, Mizo and Manipuri secessionist rebels were trained, armed and financed by China via Myanmar until Mao died in 1976. It is noteworthy that post-Maoist market-oriented China has not severed ties with separatists of Northeast India. The “Chinese private arms dealers” and “black market” which sustain anti-India guerrillas today through third party intermediaries may be after cash, but the author demonstrates that they are a product of Chinese security services “turning a blind eye to the traffic.” He predicts that China will continue opportunistic ties with anti-India insurgents for leverage on border talks and as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the presence of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in India.
Lintner devotes one chapter each in this book to the intriguing methods by which China converted Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal into battlefields for pressurising India. With the intention of countering New Delhi’s influence in these Himalayan middle zones, Beijing has courted a vast variety of local players in these lands and tried to stoke anti-India sentiments. Lintner’s key observation in this context is that “the Chinese always hedge their bets and never put all their eggs in one basket.”
The central takeaway from this rambling but informative book of historical revisionism is that India faces a sophisticated and relentless adversary in China which has many aces up its sleeve besides the Pakistan card. India must grasp China’s multifarious means and dissect its true intent, which remains essentially unchanged since the fateful decade when Buddhist Tibet was gobbled up by the godless Communists.
The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs